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Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Updated: October 31, 9:26 PM ET
Lakers offer little in opener

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers know how to do nights like this. Even on the fly, even when everything around them devolves into a circus, the show always goes on here.

The plans for opening night of the 2012-2013 season have been in the works since mid-August when general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss pulled off blockbuster trades for point guard Steve Nash and center Dwight Howard.

Music was in order. Streamers, customized T-shirts, dramatic videos and lighting. All that stuff. Howard even came back early from his back rehabilitation for a couple of preseason games so the video could include footage of him in a Lakers uniform.

It was great entertainment.

Unfortunately, then the game started.

Bryant/Howard
Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard each had statistically good opening-night games, but the Lakers, as a team, struggled against the Mavs.

It wasn't just sad, it was borderline unwatchable. A team with one of the greatest point guards of all time (Nash), one of the best scorers in NBA history (Kobe Bryant), the most dominant center in the game (Howard) and one of the most intelligent, skilled big men in basketball (Pau Gasol) struggled to break 90 points in an ugly 99-91 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

It would be hard to find 10 good minutes in the game tape from Tuesday night. Frankly, it would be hard to watch that game again unless you were being paid to do so.

"Obviously that's not the way we wanted it to go," Gasol said.

By now you've probably heard the Lakers are still figuring out how to play together and within their new Princeton offense.

Bryant swears it will be "a work of art" when the Lakers finally get it down.

But after a month of hearing Lakers players preach patience and look forward to the day "when" they put it all together, you sort of have to question "if" that day is really coming or will come soon enough for a team with such enormous expectations.

"Honestly, it looked like guys were just trying to find their way out there,'' said one scout in attendance Tuesday night. "The cohesion wasn't there. The spacing and the angles were all distorted.

"It was only the second time these guys all played together, and it showed."

That line of reasoning was a popular explanation for why the Lakers struggled last season. They had a new coach, who put in a new system, in a condensed, lockout-shortened season with a bunch of players who had their guts ripped out on the eve of training camp after a trade for Chris Paul was called off.

This season that excuse doesn't ring as true. Mike Brown has been here a year. And while the offense he's running is very different, he has had an entire training camp to install it, instead of the ridiculous 10-day camp before last season.

Yes, the Lakers have two new superstars to assimilate. And yes, Howard made it out for only two exhibition games and Bryant missed significant time because of a foot injury.

But honestly, look at the Lakers' opponent from Tuesday night.

Dallas lost Jason Terry and Jason Kidd to free agency, played without Dirk Nowitzki (knee) and Chris Kaman (calf), and three of their starters -- Elton Brand, Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo -- were playing their first game as Mavs.

"If the other teams can do it faster than ourselves, good for them," Gasol said. "We just have to focus on ourselves. We know it's not going to happen right away from what we are seeing. But we just have to stay with it and make a conscious effort every day and every play to get better."

Gasol is exactly right, of course. But the longer this process lasts, the more inconvenient that truth becomes for a team coming into this season with the highest of expectations.

After the game, Bryant sat at his locker for a good 15 minutes with his sore right foot soaking in ice water. A week ago, he couldn't even walk on it. When he wasn't using crutches to get around, he was trying everything on the training menu to get better.

At some point over the weekend he started feeling a little better. Like maybe he could play in the opener. Maybe.

While he has built a reputation on playing through injuries, this was something different. It wasn't just about pain tolerance and willpower.

Still, playing in the opener is important to him. He is the guy who always plays. And the season opener, particularly a season opener for a season like this, is symbolic.

It's the night the curtain goes up and you make a statement to the league and your new teammates. It's the night you put on a show.

Bryant held up his end of that arrangement, scoring 22 points on an efficient 11-of-14 shooting. So did Gasol, who had 23 points and 13 rebounds.

And as usual, the Lakers' pregame entertainment was fantastic.

But then the game started and there really wasn't much to see.